Daniel Ellsberg: Whistleblowing Is Needed to Avert Catastrophic U.S. War with Iran & North Korea

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Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg is best known for leaking information about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1971, but he also drafted plans for nuclear war as a consultant to the Department of Defense and the White House, as detailed in his book, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.” He joins us in Santa Cruz to discuss nuclear war, North and South Korea and Iran. He says Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal has “no imaginable benefit to anybody, except for those madmen who want to see Iran destroyed,” referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s what I want to ask you about, Dan Ellsberg, if you see parallels between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, Trump is almost blatantly talking about Nixon’s madman theory, the idea that he, Trump, as the president, as Nixon pretended to be at least, was unbalanced, capable of intemperate actions, you know, able of going to war using nuclear weapons. The problem, of course, with the world is that it’s all too easy to believe that Trump is mad in this case. Kim Jong-un gives a similar impression. I’m less convinced that Kim is not bluffing on this point.

But I’m increasingly feeling that Trump, President Trump, is not bluffing when he appears to be ready to do the crazy actions of either getting into a war with a nuclear-weaponed state, North Korea, or attacking Iran, which would be another catastrophe—not nuclear, until we use them against Iran’s underground sites, as Vice President Cheney wanted to do in 2006 and was exposed there, I think, by a leak by my friend Seymour Hersh, who showed that the Joint Chiefs were against that. I think that was a major factor in that not happening then.

We’re on the verge now of, I think, a two-sided nuclear war, a limited one, with North Korea. They don’t have the capability, they don’t have enough weapons, to cause nuclear winter. And they don’t have enough cities to burn for us to cause nuclear winter. But it will be more violence in a day, in a week, in a month, than the world has ever seen in that period of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think a summit is possible?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, of course, what we’ve been hearing is that a summit is possible. And that, by the way, was not foreseen two months ago. At the same time, as we talk, as you know, that’s being put into question, very surreally. It always looked improbable or implausible, rather than impossible, which it would have looked earlier. Now it does look unlikely.

If it fails—there is, by the way, I think, an agreement that could come out of that summit that would be for the good of all: a double freeze, as the Chinese and Russians put it, on their testing of H-bombs and H-warheads and missiles, ICBMs, and, on our part, ceasing to rehearse assassination of Kim Jong-un, so-called decapitation, or rehearsing of invasions of North [Korea], which we do at least annually, and signing at last a peace treaty after—what is it?—almost more than 60 years, so—and with trade, normalizing relations with North Korea. I think that’s possible, at least—more than possible.

But it doesn’t seem where we’re headed, in terms—Trump seems to be pressing, with Bolton’s urging, at a totally infeasible notion of beginning or very early stages of their giving up their deterrent entirely, all their nuclear weapons they constructed. I think that Kim Jong-un thinks that would be crazy for him, and that’s not the kind of crazy he is. The kind of crazy that Trump is, I’m afraid, is that he could start that war.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of the national security adviser, John Bolton, who said, in a Sunday talk show, as the summit was, well, about to get underway in a few weeks, that he was looking at the Libya option?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, that’s such a macabre, black humor kind of joke. Of course, a major promoter of the nuclear—the expensive and difficult nuclear program in North Korea is precisely that example that Bolton is—he doesn’t want to end with a bayonet in his back any more than Gaddafi wanted that. And his notion of—his determination to have some nuclear weapons is precisely to avoid that. But Bolton, of course, has made no secret, for years, that he thought North Korea should be attacked. And that’s extended into the period when North Korea is a nuclear state. We haven’t made threats against a nuclear state since the Cuban missile crisis, which I participated in, in 1962.

AMY GOODMAN: How were you involved?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Oh, well, I was working on two working groups under the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, the so-called EXCOM. And I was sleeping in the Pentagon several nights toward the end of that crisis. And, of course, I describe it in some detail in my book. But what I didn’t realize at the time was how very close we came to ending human civilization, most human life at that time, with—what we already had was a doomsday machine, a system for destroying every city in Russia and China, with the effect of causing smoke in the stratosphere, lofted into the stratosphere, that would blot out 70 percent of the sunlight reaching the Earth and kill all the harvests. In effect, it would have led to worldwide starvation, including in this country—not just an ordinary famine, the end of food. And that has been really the consequence we can expect since 1983, when it was discovered that smoke was the most widespread lethal effect of such a large nuclear attack. So that the—our strategic command—

AMY GOODMAN: Known as nuclear winter.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: —is, in effect, a starvation command. We’ve found a way to bring about the death by famine of virtually all humans.

AMY GOODMAN: So, two things are happening at once: the possibility of U.S.-North Korea summit, or the torpedoing of it, and the U.S.—President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes, the pulling out of the Iran deal seems to have no imaginable benefit to anybody except those madmen who want to see Iran destroyed in a military attack, a war. That seems to be Netanyahu and the Sunni rivals of Iran, Saudi Arabia and others, who want to see the U.S. destroy, with Israeli help, Iran’s military apparatus. That could well lead to the use of U.S. nuclear weapons against underground command bunkers and sites in Iran.

But the key effect of that, as of a war in Korea, is not directly nuclear winter, as it would be an a war against Russia. Actually, this would be, in either case, a war in which Russia and China would be on the other side. I think the main effect, in the long run, would be that it would kill, for generations perhaps, the chance of the kind of cooperation with Russia and China that’s essential both to deal with climate change and with eliminating the doomsday machines on both sides. It would make them permanent, in effect.

And although they haven’t been triggered by their hair trigger posture over the last 70 years—yet—I think that’s by a kind of miracle, the kind of miraculous secular miracle that I’ve been talking about earlier, which can be good or not so good. I think we’ve been saved by very, very good luck. And that’s not so likely to continue without a major change in our policies.

So, what I’m really saying is that it’s urgent. It’s urgent to dismantle this doomsday machine and to deal with the climate problem, in the way that it was urgent to raise the levees and strengthen the levees in New Orleans before Katrina, as was recommended and requested, demanded, every year for more than a decade before Katrina struck. Likewise, it was urgent to stop building in flood zones in Houston before Harvey struck. But in this case, we’re talking about the world being obliterated, the world of humanity and of civilization.

AMY GOODMAN: What message do you have for government insiders who are considering becoming whistleblowers?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: My message to them is: Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait 'til the bombs are actually falling or thousands more have died, before you do what I wish I had done years earlier, in ’64 or even ’61, on the nuclear issue. And that is, reveal the truth that you know, the dangerous truths that are being withheld by the government, at whatever cost to yourself, whatever risk that may take. Consider doing that, because a war's worth of lives may be at stake. Or in the case of the two existential crises I’m talking about, the future of humanity is at stake.

So many graduating classes, I think, have been taught—have been told, year after year for half a century, that they face a crossroads or that much depends on what they do. That’s no exaggeration right now. It’s this generation, not the next one, the people living right now, that have to change these problems fast. And I think truth-telling is crucial to mobilize that.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the information that you think most needs to be revealed right now?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, I’m certain that there are studies in the Pentagon and CIA and the NSC right now that reveal two things: that it would be disastrous, catastrophic, to go to war against North Korea, even though the immediate casualties would be measured in millions rather than billions, which is the nuclear winter problem, and, likewise, it would be catastrophic to be at war with Iran, a nation four times the size in population of Iraq. And as I say, we’ve never faced up to the human cost of that war, Iraq.

So, I’m sure there are studies—top-secret, secret, confidential or higher than top-secret—that make this very clear. I would say that Mattis, [Jim] Mattis, the secretary of defense, should not wait until the bombs are falling before he reveals those truths to Congress and the public. And if he doesn’t do it—and he’s very unlikely to do it—then his secretary or his aides or assistant secretaries should risk, sacrifice their careers, to avert these wars, which must not happen.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. His latest book is The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Henry Kissinger once called him “the most dangerous man in America.”

That does it for our show. If you’d like to sign up for our daily digest, our news headlines and news alerts each day, you can text the word “democracynow,” one word, to 66866.

Special thanks to our crew here at UC Santa Cruz, Learning Technologies: John Raedeke, Gary Gyorkos, Juan Pérez, Chris Salerno, David Valadez, also former Democracy Now! fellow, now UC Santa Cruz P.h.D student, Juan Carlos Dávila, Denis Moynihan and Mike Burke. Special thanks to David Shaw and Jean Fox, as well. Happy birthday, Simin Farkhondeh!

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